Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan (1964), directed by Masaki Kobayashi.

"Kaidan" = "antique ghost story". Angry ghosts, in this case.

This puts the Art in Art Film. Four spooky stories with major actors and deft visuals and sound design strongly suggesting the spirit world. Much of it is filmed on large soundstages with a purposeful anti-realistic intent: we can see the landscapes and clouds painted on the walls.

This helps us enter into the storybook world. According to the commentary the images are meant to suggest the illuminated scrolls of the original tales. The movie is adapted from the stories of Lafcadio Hearn, a European living in Japan who collected and published the folklore.

Scored by Toru Takemitsu, who used John Cage's techniques of altering instruments for eerie, inexplicable music and sound effects. He also slows down and deepens both voices and instruments, presumably done with tape machines in those days.

The film is three hours long but I see no problem in splitting it into four viewing sessions.

Our tales:

The Black Hair

A poor samurai abandons his wife and marries into a rich family. He is not happy there and is haunted by memories of his first wife. After many years he finally returns home...

The Woman of the Snow

Two woodcutters are caught in a blizzard and there are eyes in the storm! They find shelter in a shack. One is killed by a beautiful snow-spirit who drains his life away. She spares the other, on condition that he promise never to tell what happened.

After he recovers from this ordeal he meets a young women named Yuki (= "snow"). They marry and have children and are very happy. Ten years later he relates an old story...

Hoichi the Earless

It opens with an ambitious enactment of the sea-fight of the Battle of Dan-no-ura (1185). We hear a singer chanting the story and then jump centuries forward in time to meet the blind musician who specializes in the epic tale. He lives at a monastery and the kindly monks care for him.

A ghostly figure approaches him (the sense of invisible presences moving along the garden paths is very well done) and asks him to perform before his lord and the court. Hoichi does so, thinking these are living people in a palace, but they are actually ghosts in the graveyard. Those who died in the sea-fight long before want to hear the tale told again.

When the monks discover what has happened they are terrified that Hoichi's body and soul are in peril...

In a Cup of Tea

One day a samurai sees the mysterious reflection of a smirking young man in a bowl of tea. The image won't go away so the man impulsively gulps it down. That was probably a mistake.

This actually a tale-within-a-tale, both incomplete. The frame is a writer collecting the tale around 1900, just as Lafcadio Hearn did.

Available on Blu-ray from Criterion. A valuable commentary track discusses not only the stories, but has a wealth of material on the visual and sound design.